Mass Effect Review
Mass Effect’s world and story are rich and deep. I will leave their details to the masses of coverage elsewhere and your own experience of the game, but suffice it to say it’s a space opera on the scale of Star Wars, Star Trek etc. It has many similarities to Halo (Proteans, meet Forerunners! Thorian, meet Gravemind! Space Marines, meet Space Marines!), but the amount of story you can actually explore without picking up a spinoff book handily dwarfs anything you’ll find on everyone’s favourite ring world franchise. The sheer importance of the story to this game is encouraging for anyone who enjoys games with rich story, or sees the potential of interactive narrative experiences.
That said, for every advance in game storytelling that Mass Effect perpetrates, there is a shortfall. I love the dialogue wheel, but more often than not the choices it presents are superficial. The interactive cutscenes are indeed more film-like than any game I’ve played, but any film critic worth her salt would blast them for their sometimes-wooden dialogue and the non-existent blocking and camera movement. I haven’t played the entire game yet, but from what I hear, your choices don’t have as much effect on the outcome of the story, or change the gameplay, as they did in previous Bioware games.
The combat is enjoyable and presents many options. There are different character classes: soldier for straight-ahead shooter action, biotic aka magic-user, and tech, which is sorta like a thief with a little bit of magic, too. The action is real-time, but can be paused to bring up a command wheel from which you can select orders for yourself and two squadmates. There are squad controls as well, but they’re pretty basic and unfortunately, the usefulness of your squad members is marred by the game’s shoddy AI. You can tell your soldiers to target a specific enemy, but they’ll often stand behind a crate firing rounds into it rather than get to a position from which they can actually help.
But watch which squad you choose. I got to a point where rather than lose the same boss battle for the 20th time, I had to restart from an old save, losing 2 hours of game progress. The problem was I hadn’t brought a tech character along, which meant over the course of that 2 hours since landing on the planet, I had been unable to get into a fair portion of the containers of loot since they required a character with a reasonably high decryption skill. So my characters did not have the level of armour, weapons etc. you might associate with their experience level, and they could last mere seconds against this boss. This is a problem that could have been avoided if the game had simply explained itself a little better. How the fuck would I know I needed a tech to get loot? The game is in dire need of a proper tutorial; many things you need to know are just never explained at all. Which is not what one expects of a modern game.
Let me go over that replay scenario again. Every time that boss killed my dudes after 5 seconds, I get the loading screen for a good thirty seconds. Then, since the game forbids saving during combat, I’m thrown back to the last autosave location, which is before a really lengthy cutscene. I soon learned to hit ‘x’ to fast forward through the scene line by line, but that still means a whole lot of meaningless, repetitive button-pressing. There are a lot of things that you’ll have to put up with to play this game, including lengthy loading times, an autosave ‘feature’ so halfassed as to be actively harmful, some poorly designed item menus, and plenty of severe bugs. Suffice it to say, save hard and often.
If you can put up with all that, you’ll find plenty to like. Once you get the hang of the combat, and once you start figuring out how to balance your squad and what all the various items and powers do, there are many ways to approach every combat encounter. The ‘Mako’, the rover vehicle that’s kind of a cross between a Warthog and the SUV from Crackdown, is lots of fun. And, you’re just going to want to know what happens with the story. That this game has turned cutscenes from skippable filler into something you actively look forward to is no mean feat.
I’m in the thick of it now, so I’m heading in for more and if what I see changes what I’ve said here, I’ll report back.